It was the eve of the deadliest day of the coronavirus spike that brought New York City to a trembling standstill. They were a handful of people doing what they could in the city’s fight for survival, and their own.
A year ago, The Associated Press told the story of a day in the life of a stricken city through the eyes of New Yorkers on the front lines and in quarantine as they faced fear, tragedy, isolation and upheaval.
As the United States’ most populous city turned into its most lethal coronavirus hot spot, some of these New Yorkers saw the virus’ toll up close in an emergency room, an ambulance and a funeral home.
Others were suddenly looking from what felt like far away at the city and the lives they knew — a Broadway actor wondering when the curtain would go up again, a rabbi no longer able to hold the hands of dying people. A taxi driver and a woman running a local meals-on-wheels program who contended with the risks and challenges of jobs that were suddenly recognized as essential.
The AP recently returned to these New Yorkers to look at a full year of living through the pandemic in a city that has regrouped but not fully recovered.
Like New York itself, they’ve endured 12 months framed by grief and fortitude, trauma and new direction, economic and social loss, exhaustion and cautious reawakening — and both worry and hope about the future.
Travis Kessel has begun making plans again: a 30th birthday trip to Walt Disney World, tickets for a rescheduled concert that he hopes will happen this time.
Yet the excitement that something like normal life is returning is tempered by worries about how quickly it could be taken away again. The Fire Department paramedic knows something else could always be lurking.
“For years it was: ‘What’s the next terrorist attack going to be?’ After 9/11, that became the prevailing fear of people, especially Americans, New Yorkers,” Kessel said. “And now, going through something like this — what’s the next virus around the corner? What’s the next pandemic?”
The deluge of 911 calls for medical aid has subsided since peaking in late March 2020 at more than 6,000 a day, compared to 4,000 or fewer normally, and filling Kessel’s days with a stunning volume of critically ill and dead patients. He still starts to choke up when he recalls telling a man that his wife was dead, and the tearful husband saying, “I lost my best friend.”
Now there’s less stress, though not enough less to relax. It haunts Kessel that it’s still not fully understood why the virus spiked as abruptly and severely as it did in New York City, where the daily death toll went from zero to more than 800 in just over three weeks. In all, the city counts more than 30,000 coronavirus deaths.
He lost colleagues including Idris Bey, a fellow EMS instructor who was a rescuer at the World Trade Center and died last April at 60. The FDNY hasn’t been able to gather fully to honor those lost with line-of-duty funerals.
Without diversions such as travel, Kessel said it’s felt like virtually all work for more than a year.
His break is finally coming. He and his wife, Meghan, a nurse, will celebrate his birthday at Disney World, where they got engaged.
“It seems to be we’re heading in the right direction,” Kessel said. “There’s going to be hiccups, but at this point, there is light at the end of the tunnel. Whether it’s real or not is yet to be determined.”